Smotherhood: Are Report Cards Relevant?

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Hanging on my wall is a framed document from my childhood: a high-school report card. What’s frame-worthy about this particular report card is not the level of achievement it reflects; my grades that year were unremarkable. But in the margins is a handwritten commentary from my father, a chronic overachiever who once asked me, when I got 97 percent on a test, where the other three percent had gone. “Inadequate,” he charges, in response to a B I got in French. “Barely acceptable,” he concludes, next to an A I got in my English class. Overall, he judges my performance to be “below expectations.”

Twenty-some years later, from the vantage point of a generally happy adulthood, I keep it as both a hilarious and poignant reminder of how our expectations as parents influence our children’s development. (Plus if I ever need therapy, producing that one document will save me hours of expensive explanation.)

My parents, born into less-than-privileged circumstances, exceeded their own parents’ modest educational dreams for them, banking six university degrees between them. My mother involved herself hugely in my schooling, advocating for enriched programs, skipping me a grade (the school, in its wisdom, wouldn’t let me skip two, which was her preference), and then taking me out of the public system altogether for most of my high-school years. Naturally, they expected that I would outshine them. Naturally, I did not.

My son, who entered kindergarten last year, has been the beneficiary of a less forceful approach. Like any kid, he’s great at some things (reading, math) and not so good at others (writing and paying attention), and I thought I could predict, as he started school, what his teacher would have to say.

Then he got his first report card.

Now, 5-year-olds (at least in our neck of the woods) are not assigned a letter grade or percentage. Instead, their language, math, science and social-studies skills are described on a scale: Not Yet Meeting Expectations (I love the optimism of that “Yet”), Approaching Expectations, Meeting Expectations, and Exceeding Expectations. Not surprisingly, his listening skills received “Approaching Expectations,” which I thought was kind in the circumstances.

But the one thing he was really great at – reading, which he’d been doing independently for months – was also described as “Approaching Expectations.” And, his teacher suggested, he would benefit from assistance at home with early readers.

I was mystified and a little affronted. My son had a bookshelf full of early readers he devoured every night! I had to laugh at my immediate urge to bang down his teacher’s door. My mother spluttered with disbelief. My son’s daycare provider was outraged on his behalf, demanding that I ask for an explanation. My son, on the other hand, gloriously oblivious to this official declaration of his averageness — or even below-averageness — didn’t seems to mind in the least.

And so I faced my first school dilemma. I liked his teacher, an experienced, engaging woman, and admired her obvious dedication to her students. Should I confront the discrepancy or should I let it lie? Where’s the line between sharing necessary information and foisting your own perceptions on someone who evaluates kids’ progress for a living?

In the end I decided I should say something, if only because future work might well depend on her understanding of each kid’s abilities. So I wrote a note, carefully conveying my eagerness to work with my son on his particular challenges and mentioning my surprise at the assessment of his reading. Could it be that he’s too shy to read out loud in class, I asked. Or maybe he’s too distracted when he’s in a group?

Her response assured me that this early in the year she had not necessarily observed the full range of his skills. No doubt his next report card would be a more accurate reflection, she said.

Four months later, the second report card arrived. Indeed, he was now “Meeting Expectations” when it came to reading (although sadly still “Approaching Expectations” when it came listening and writing), which continued to floor anyone familiar with his love of books. But accompanying the report card was an illuminating handwritten note. His teacher assured me that she was aware of his reading skills and said his final report card would no doubt describe them as “Exceeding Expectations.” Then, she delicately explained she was always cautious about putting students in this category “as there are some drawbacks in doing so early in the year — as well as early in a child’s education.”

Eureka, I thought. This teacher — a Montessori specialist — had clearly been fielding the demands of pushy parents for decades, and had developed a strategy for managing their expectations — not just of her but also of their geniuses-in-waiting.

And so I relaxed. I figure that as long as my son looks forward to school and is learning at a pace that matches his curiosity, I’ll be content to focus on his extracurricular education.

At least until I get his next report card….

(Photo: iStockphoto)